To What Extent Did Public Opinion Shape International Politics in the First Half of the Twentieth Century’?

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International History 1914-1991–

Essay:

‘To what extent did public opinion shape international politics in the first half of the twentieth century’?

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Word count: 1,617 words approximately

The first half of the twentieth century was indeed a time in history in which things such as two of the most deadly wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the foundation of the UN and the start of the Cold War took place. But, were these events at any point influenced by the views expressed by citizens?. This essay is going to discuss public opinion during the first half of the twentieth century. To do so, the essay uses a journal article on public opinion written by Hans Speier as a guideline of the essay.

In order to understand the impact of public opinion on international affairs, we must firstly define what we mean by public opinion. According to Slavko Splichal, ‘the concept of public, publicness, publicity, public sphere and public opinion are among the most controversial, ambiguous and nontransparent concepts in the social sciences, that have been used consistently since the eighteen century’. ‘Public opinion’ he adds ‘supposedly developed into a “inner-media” of political system, a mirror “generated by mass media to regulate the watching of the observers’. Then, ‘who precisely were the decision makers? Monarchs, presidents, foreign ministers, staff chiefs, or a combination of these?’

In the early twentieth century, public opinion did not have much of an impact in foreign politics. Speier says that public opinion ‘in its early phase […] showed a marked preoccupation with domestic affairs, i.e., with issues of immediate concern to the life of citizens’. On the other hand ‘foreign policy issues appeared less relevant, but they were expected to be ultimately relegated from the realm of power to that of discussion and agreement, as governments would become more enlightened’. And Speier emphasised that public opinion would only support going to war if that was something that ‘were in the interest of enlightened mankind’. As Mike Sharp, Ian Westwell and John Westwood say: ‘In most European countries public opinion in the years preceding 1914 had accepted the likelihood, to some extent even the desirability, of war’.

Talking about the interest of enlightened mankind, Woodrow Wilson stated: ‘National purposes have fallen more and more into the background; and the common purpose of enlightened mankind has taken their place’. Moreover he added that ‘this is a people’s war, not a statesman’s’.

But Speier states that it was just after the First World War, when the ‘faith in the power of public opinion to render world politics reasonable’ was called into question. Speier argues that this was due to a series of events.

The first of these was the demise of the League of Nations, which failed to fulfill its purpose, namely to prevent the outbreak of a new world war. Moreover, US President Woodrow Wilson was an advocate of the League of Nations, yet his country refused to join the organisation. Despite Wilson’s description of the Great War as a ‘people’s war, not a statesman’s’ and his intentions to join the League of Nations, the Senate refused to join the organisation. This action showed that public opinion did not have much influence in fact; it appears that statesmen still played a big role in deciding issues of internal relations.

Secondly, Speier mention the ‘disillusionment concerning the lofty war aims of the Allies and the general distrust of propaganda which spread between the two world wars’, as a large section of the public thought that the Allies’ aims were overly idealistic and, more importantly, those aims were not fulfilled. The human cost of the World War was enormous. People had lost their families from the trenches and the reports from the soldiers were awful. War wasn’t glamorous and against this perception, idealism could do very...
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